Blame it on whomever you want — Michael Jackson, Madonna, MTV, or the entire billion-dollar record industry, which throws tens of thousands of new records against the barnyard wall every year. Whatever the cause, every new album by nearly every major pop act wants to live extra large: to sell more copies than its predecessor, to spawn a barrage of singles and videos, to be a multi-media event that takes the singer or band to the next level of world domination. This approach isn’t completely new — it’s the basis of the entertainment business, after all — but what is different is how it’s affected pop. Reflecting that hunger, major-league albums feel pumped with recording-studio steroids. What ever happened to careers that wound their way down byways and off-ramps, willing to risk sales for the sake of the journey?
Beck, for one, remembers; in fact, the very idea consumes Mutations (out Nov. 3), the follow-up to the overflowing musical salad bar that was 1996’s deadpan-cheeky, Grammy-winning Odelay. Steeped in zeitgeist and samples, Odelay left a sizable footprint on the cultural beachhead. But rather than try to top it, Beck has chosen to revisit his long-standing love of acoustic music. Mutations is a deliberately low-key procession of folkish rambles that aren’t interested in any grand statements. In terms of historical context, think of Bruce Springsteen releasing the smaller, more intimate Tunnel of Love after Born in the U.S.A. unintentionally made him a symbol of American brawn and macho. Or, as Beck drawls at one point here, ”Engineer, slow down this ol’ train.”
Naturally, Beck’s approach to looking inward is skewed compared with that of your standard singer-songwriter. Mutations is a collection of tumblin’-tumbleweeds, mellow-Acapulco-gold melodies on which Beck’s drowsy voice and strummed guitar are framed by the lazy whine of a pedal steel, the wheeze of a harmonica, the occasional trumpet, and the bleeps and burps of old-school synthesizers. (In Beck’s universe, an old-fangled Moog synth is a traditional instrument.) It’s folk music littered with the new sonic pollution, and it has an amiable, low-rent charm. With its sitar buzzing around like a border-town mosquito, the sad-sack love lament ”Nobody’s Fault but My Own” has a drony, sonorous melancholy. ”Dead Melodies” feels ripe for a late-night cantina, while ”We Live Again” has a haunted frailty, like a music box playing in a graveyard.
Some of Beck’s loveliest work has been in this unplugged vein; the form brings out a sweet, guileless side of his personality. Unfortunately, what’s entered the picture since Beck’s days as a blues-picking bar folkie is affectation. The corny barroom-piano trills in ”Cancelled Check,” the bossa nova lounge-folk groove of ”Tropicalia,” even his occasionally stilted delivery — all bespeak a self-consciousness (even for a supremely self-aware musician like Beck) that wasn’t heard in past ballads like the tender, violin-laced acoustic 1994 B side ”Totally Konfused.” The lyrics, most of them typically absurdist, won’t pull you in either. We wouldn’t want (or expect) Beck to transform himself into the male Jewel. But in this down-home scenario, admittedly clever lines like ”I’ve been looking for my shadow/But this place is so bright and so clean” just aren’t satisfying enough.
Mutations fulfills Beck’s need to chill out, take things down a notch, and avoid pigeonholing as the white-rap geek with the weird suits. To say those goals are admirable is an understatement, especially as we prepare for this fall’s avalanche of big-name releases. (Increasingly, pop albums are beginning to resemble the music industry’s equivalent of summer movie blockbusters.) To extend the comparison, Mutations is like an experimental indie film — a pleasant, and welcome, diversion that’s more important for where it’s at than for what it is. B